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What has Chicago to do with Jerusalem? — An Excerpt from "Cities of Tomorrow and the City to Come"

Categories Theology Book Excerpts

9780310516019Of course our question is a contemporary twist on an ancient one:  “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”

Then, Tertullian was asking about the relationship between philosophy and Christianity. Now, in his new book Cities of Tomorrow and the City to Come, (available 5/5/15) Noah J. Toly is asking about the relationship between urban life and the Christian faith.

As a Christian who studies cities and urban life, exploring these intersections is not optional. Christian theology is closely related to my practice of urban studies. How I study urban life and how I think about Christian doctrine must be connected. (17)

The excerpt below visits a conversation between him and an atheist acquaintance to preface learning, faith, and urban life. She wondered why an urbanist like himself was interested in studying theology and religious ethics.

In other words, “What has Chicago to do with Jerusalem?”

Read this excerpt and then his book to find out.

When Gene Green first asked me to contribute to this series, I was astonished by the timing. I had just—I mean just—finished telling a friend about a recent lunch with one of the foremost urbanists of our time. This urbanist, one of the world’s most influential scholars of cities and urban life, had requested a lunch with me during a conference we were both attending. Her invitation was the kind that you don’t turn down. Little did I know when I accepted it, though, that our meeting would focus on a discussion of faith and learning and, more specifically, the relationship between Christian faith and how we come to understand contemporary urban life.

Over lunch we discussed her most recent big project and my latest work, and then she asked this question: “Now, Noah, I recently wrote a letter recommending you for a year-long opportunity to study theology and religious ethics. I’m really glad that worked out. But I have one question, and as someone who recommended you, I think I am entitled to ask it: Why? Why would an urbanist like you want to study theology and ethics? Why would you spend your sabbatical doing that? I mean, I understand why clergy would want to study these things, but why would an urbanist want to do that? I understand why Rowan Williams would want to think theologically, but why you?” At the time, Rowan Williams was the Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican Communion. The scholar I was dining with had apparently met Williams on several occasions and, despite their many differences on religion, very much admired him. She understood why Williams, an eminent theological scholar and professional minister of the gospel, would want to study theology and religious ethics. But why me?

Why me indeed! The answer I gave in the moment, an unpracticed reply to an unexpected question, was this: “Religion and urbanization are two of the world’s most powerful forces, but it’s also personal for me. You know, I’ve had life-changing experiences in and with cities. And I’ve always had a serious interest in ethics, but more personally, I am a Christian, and I’m interested in the ways in which I might think more carefully about the intersection of my own faith and my scholarship on cities and environmental politics.” To this answer she raised, with an air of polite incredulity, another, more personal, question: “You’re a practicing Christian?”

By asking whether I was a practicing Christian, she wanted to know whether, on the one hand, I simply grew up in a Christian home or identified in some loose fashion with the Christian tradition, or on the other hand, I actually went to church and confessed faith in Jesus Christ. After confirming that I do indeed attend church and confess faith in Jesus Christ, I began to map out for her the ways in which I personally feel called to explore connections between my Christian faith and my studies of cities and urban life.

“Good for you!” she said, and she meant it. “I think if you want to do that, you should. I’m sick and tired of asking younger scholars what they plan to do next and hearing them say that they’re trying to figure out what an editor wants or what could possibly be published. No: that’s just exhausting! What I like about you, Noah, is that you know just what you want to do and you do it. So if you want to do this, I think you should!” I thanked her for her support and joked that I found it refreshing that she so admired what she saw as a certain independence and determination.

This conversation is permanently etched in my memory, both because such conversations are rare and because I wish I could do it over again. What this distinguished scholar—an atheist, but not at all militantly anti-Christian—wanted was to understand the intersection of faith and learning. In a sense, her question was a contemporary twist on the church father Tertullian’s famous question, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Of course, Tertullian was asking about the relationship between philosophy and the Christian faith. Athens served as the symbolic geographical center of gravity for Greek philosophy, and at the time philosophy was the most influential way of thinking about almost anything. People turned to philosophy to explain the world. My interlocutor might have revised the question, though: “What has Chicago to do with Jerusalem?” And it would not have been as far off from the spirit of Tertullian’s question as it appears. With so many today recognizing the waxing influence of cities in global affairs, nearly everywhere we turn, people are studying cities to explain the world. As sociologist Richard Florida writes, “Cities shape and structure our increasingly interconnected planet.” Or as I have argued elsewhere, “Cities make the world.”

So this eminent scholar was putting to me what was really a contemporary twist on a timeless question, to which I gave an all-too-timely answer. She was asking me a question that, in a sense, could be asked of any Christian, and I gave her a very personal, individual answer. She asked, “Why you?” And I gave her a very “Why me?” answer.

As I look back on it now, I wish I had responded differently. The answers I gave that day left open the possibility of an almost accidental relationship between my Christian faith and my studies of cities, as if quirkily I just happened to be interested in the intersection of the two, but it’s more or less optional to make those connections. I answered as if “Yes, I am a practicing Christian and in addition, I am interested in the ways in which Christianity relates to what I study.” My answer, you see, left open the possibility that making the connections between my studies and my faith was just another product of my autonomy, of the independence and determination that she found so commendable.

Looking back on this conversation, I sometimes wish I had emphasized less the freedom I feel to connect urban studies and Christian faith and emphasized more the necessity to do the same. I sometimes wish I had highlighted less the idiosyncrasy of my own interests and highlighted more a heritage of relating all of life to the faith. I wish I had mentioned that the command to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37; see also Deuteronomy 6:5) left nothing out, and certainly could not exclude my work in urban studies. I wish I had mentioned the legacy of the apostle Paul, who implored the Corinthian church to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5, emphasis added). I wish I had underscored the rich history of Christians bringing to bear the resources of their faith on the most pressing matters of their time, such as war, slavery, and the environment. I wish I had invoked Abraham Kuyper, who said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’” But rather than Kuyper’s resounding “Mine!” of the One “in [whom] all things were created” and “in [whom] all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16– 17), I managed only a much more feeble “mine!”

Instead, when asked whether I was in fact a practicing Christian, I should have answered, “Yes, and because I’m a practicing Christian, I must connect my faith to my work as an urbanist. While practicing Christians never do less than join with other believers in confessing faith in Jesus Christ, they certainly do more, and one of the things that they do is connect their faith to all that they do and think. And that’s why I’m interested in the intersection of cities, urban life, and Christian theology.” As a Christian who studies cities and urban life, exploring these intersections is not optional. Christian theology is closely related to my practice of urban studies. How I study urban life and how I think about Christian doctrine must be connected. As Beth Jones writes, “Christian doctrine is intimately connected with faithful practice in the Christian life.” How we make those connections may differ from one person to another, but whether or not we make them isn’t up for discussion.

So when Gene Green asked if I thought that the Christian tradition had anything to do with urban life, I said, “Yes.” When he asked if I thought my personal experiences in cities around the world could be connected with my faith, I said, “Definitely.” When he asked if my studies of urbanism could be connected with theology, I said, “Absolutely.” When Gene invited me to explore that connection in this book series, I accepted, not just because I can, not just because I want to, but because I must. The question is not whether cities and urban life are related to theology, but how.

So, “What has Chicago to do with Jerusalem?” We’re about to find out. (pgs. 13–17)

Cities of Tomorrow and the City to Come by Noah Toly

Cities of Tomorrow and the City to Come

By Noah J. Toly

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